A Face-Lift for the St. Paul City Council?

Primaries could mean a stronger, tougher lineup

Shortly after Thune announced his candidacy for the Ward Two seat this year, the Pioneer Press reported that he was 11 months delinquent on a $25,000 city-backed loan that had been secured to renovate a building on West Seventh Street. Thune has subsequently paid off the balance and blames his political opponents for leaking the story even though they knew he was about to settle the debt. "It's petty politics," he insists.

While most of the Ward Two candidates are unwilling to take on Thune's problematic record, Elizabeth Dickinson does claim that she's encountered a significant "ABT" sentiment on the campaign trail: Anyone But Thune.

 

In recent years Hmong residents have emerged as a potent force in St. Paul politics. Two years ago Mee Moua shook up the political establishment by bringing out scads of new voters and defeating a handful of veteran candidates for a state senate seat on the city's east side. Cy Thao followed up that victory by handily winning a state house race last year in a district that includes much of Ward One.

This year's city council race presents a new wrinkle in Hmong politics: two candidates from the community squaring off against one another. Bao Vang and Toumoua Lee are just two candidates in a freewheeling contest that features at least five legitimate contenders, but their presence has created some unusual discussions and disputes among Hmong citizens.

Early on in the race, there was considerable pressure for one of them to drop out so that Hmong voters could unite behind one candidate. Even now there remains confusion among residents; some persist in believing that they can vote for both candidates. There are dozens of homes in the Frogtown neighborhood, the heart of Ward One, where both candidates' placards sit side by side in the same yard.

Last week, tensions between the two campaigns came into the open when Lee fired off a letter accusing his opponent of falsely informing voters that he was no longer in the race. He also charged that Vang's supporters were misleading elderly voters about the date of the election and then driving them downtown to fill out absentee ballots.

Vang scoffs at the accusations. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with what we are doing and those allegations are absolutely not true," she says. "I think it's just a desperate last-minute attempt to try and get the Hmong people to get out there and support him." (The Ramsey County Attorney's Office is charged with investigating Lee's accusations.)

The presence of two Hmong candidates in the race has created other unusual dynamics. Vang is running on a largely progressive platform and has garnered the support of many advocacy and labor groups, including Minnesota ACORN and AFSCME Council 14. She views younger Hmong voters as a primary source of support.

By contrast, Lee, who is a real estate agent and developer, has courted the business sector and Christians. He's an active member of St. Paul Hmong Alliance Church in Maplewood, which has some 3,000 members. "He's really looking for votes in the Christian community," says Lee Pao Xiong, a longtime Hmong political activist. "He's got a solid base with that."

Lee has also sought support from the heads of the 18 Hmong clans, traditionally the leaders of the community. "He's doing it the old Hmong way of bringing all the older clan leaders together," says Vang. However, Xiong says, the political power of the clan leaders has been greatly diminished in recent years. "It doesn't work anymore," he argues. "Nobody's stupid enough to follow a leader blindly anymore."

 

Elizabeth Dickinson cuts a striking figure as she trolls Grand Avenue for votes. Dressed in a blue and white polka dot dress with bright red buttons and matching belt, she buttonholes passing pedestrians with a fervor (and an outsized smile) that might be mistaken for an evangelical Christian's come-on.

Dickinson is the first Green Party candidate ever to run for the St. Paul City Council. Her candidacy comes during a period of growing pains for the fledgling political movement. The Green Party has established itself as a player in local races--most notably by winning two city council seats in Minneapolis--but it has never ceased to flounder at the state level. In the 2002 election, despite receiving public matching funds and fielding a credible slate of candidates, no Green got more than four percent of the vote.

St. Paul has long been basically a one-party town. The closest it generally gets to political debate is between moderate and liberal Democrats. When Dave Thune stepped down from the Ward Two post in 1998, the only candidate to run for the position was DFLer Chris Coleman. Two years later Coleman trounced his lone challenger, a Republican, by a more than two-to-one margin.

"They aren't the DFL party of 20 years ago, but they're still the only major party in town," says Dave Schultz, a Hamline University law professor who has provided legal counsel to the Green Party. "We need to have a second party in St. Paul, and the Republicans are never going to achieve it."

If Dickinson fails to survive the primary, it will not be for lack of effort. The west sider, whose résumé includes stints as a teacher, therapist, yoga instructor, and actress, has been banging on voters' doors since April, hitting every house in the ward at least once. "At my peak I was doing 30 hours a week of door-knocking," she notes. Dickinson's tireless campaigning has shown some signs of paying dividends. She earned the endorsement of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, normally a lock for the DFL standard-bearer, as well as the support of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Organization of Women.

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